Thursday, 1 October 2015

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace: many stories, many lives

Leo Tolstoy with daughter Tatyana
Leo Tolstoy with daughter Tatyana in Gaspra on the Crimea in 1902 Sophia Tolstaya/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Henry James once said that "really, universally, human relations stop nowhere," and that the exquisite problem of the writer is to draw the circle "within which they shall happily appear to do so". James would never have nominated War and Peace – he famously thought it a "loose baggy monster" – but Tolstoy's novel is surely the greatest attempt in the history of the genre to represent and embody the branching infinity of human relations of which James spoke. And there is no better example of that challenge than the way in which Tolstoy's project kept growing. He wrote War and Peace between 1863 and 1868, and intended, at first, to write a domestic chronicle in the manner of Trollope (whom Tolstoy, with a few qualifications, admired). The novel would be set in 1856, and concern an aristocratic revolutionary and his return from exile in Siberia. It would be called, improbably, All's Well That Ends Well. But in order to explain the atmosphere of Russia just after the Crimean war, Tolstoy felt he had to go back to 1825, when the Decembrists, a group of largely upper-class rebels, were arrested, and either executed or exiled. And 1825, he later said, could not be described without going back to the momentous year of 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia and occupied Moscow for a month. Yet 1812 obviously needed 1805 as a proper prelude – which is where War and Peace begins.

Inexorably, what began as Russianised Trollope widened and deepened, until it became nothing less than the attempt to write the history of Russia during the Napoleonic campaign – in fact, it became the quarry that Tolstoy had identified as a young man, in his journal: "To write the genuine history of present-day Europe: there is an aim for the whole of one's life." And as this originally "English" novel became more complex and ambitious, so it became singular and unconventional. Tolstoy claimed that it was "not a novel", at least in the familiar, European sense. We Russians, he said, produce strange misfits, awkward black sheep, like Gogol's unfinished picaresque, Dead Souls, and Dostoevsky's semi-fictionalised account of his time in a Siberian prison camp, The House of the Dead. Gustave Flaubert seemed to agree. Admiring and horrified, he complained that Tolstoy "repeats himself, and he philosophises": sins good formalist novelists should not commit.

Impatient with both traditional history-writing and traditional novel-writing, Tolstoy breaks into his fictional narrative with essays and lectures about free will, determinism, history and power. A superb fictional account of the battle of Borodino is followed by a slightly grumpy military history of the battle and a map of the battlefield. Throughout the novel there is authorial argument, admonishment, preaching – a clear desire to correct the "official" record and write the proper history of the Napoleonic invasion; truth, you feel, is being battled for, with whatever literary weapons come to hand.

Many readers tend to agree with Flaubert, and either skip or speed read the essayistic passages about historiography. There is a tradition, particularly in English letters, of separating "Tolstoy the artist" from "Tolstoy the preacher"; the long chapters about European history, it is sometimes thought, are prolix leavings, while the rich stories of Natasha and Pierre, Prince Andrei and Nikolai Rostov, are precious loans. Keep the great realist novelist, jettison the great irritable arguer. But Tolstoy is at once a preacherly artist and an artistic preacher, and it is as hard to divide him into two distinct selves as it is to divide DH Lawrence into sermonising high priest and storytelling layman. Moreover, there is something emphatic and pedagogical about Tolstoy's storytelling; he is teaching even when telling a tale. He is simple and direct and emphatic – sometimes he seems more practical and childlike (perhaps "innocent" is the right word) than most great novelists. He is not afraid to begin an episode with a throat-clearing "Here is how it came about" – the kind of phrase we encounter in fairytales. Tolstoy is a great creator of palpable individuals – the "little princess" with her short upper lip and faint moustache; Pierre Bezukhov, bumbling short-sightedly on to the battlefield at Borodino; the old Prince Bolkonsky, with his rages and his "small dry hands"; a shirtless Napoleon, grunting to his valet, who is brushing his fat back and hairy chest, "Do it hard, keep going" – but the Tolstoyan atmosphere often seems Homeric because these highly particular characters essentially share simple, large, universal emotions – joy, shame, love, anger, fear – that might easily be transferred from one character to another. Nikolai Rostov, for instance, has a young man's exuberance and solipsism; he goes to war "because he could not resist the wish to go galloping across a level field". But all his young male friends and fellow soldiers might feel the same way. Essentially, Nikolai is like all healthy young men. Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezukhov both have religious experiences, but their metaphysical curiosity is almost interchangeable (and essentially indistinguishable from Levin's, in Anna Karenina). There are female "types" in Tolstoy, too: young Natasha in War and Peace has some of the passionate curiosity and waywardness of young Kitty in Anna Karenina, while older, seasoned Natasha (the woman we encounter at the end of the novel, contentedly married to Pierre Bezukhov) has something in common with the wiser, seasoned Kitty who eventually marries Levin. And so on.

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